Cityscrapes: Local history pays the price for Briscoe deal

Update: September 22, 2014, 6:20pm

Last week the city council voted an additional $50,000 for the Central Library’s Texana and Geneaology Department for the coming fiscal year, which starts October 1—enough to keep Texana’s current hours of 40 per week. The responsiveness of the council in the face of pressure from a number of folks, including the Westside Preservation Alliance, is to be commended. Still, the saga of the Texana cut illustrates a number of issues and concerns with the city’s budget process. The formal fiscal 2015 budget document contained not a word about the cut in Texana services. There is a real disconnect when our local branch libraries have boxes and forms for public comments on the City budget, but the City staff don’t bother to tell us all the changes the new budget will bring. The original story follows below.

The annual City budget is a dense and often arcane thing, filled with “mandates,” “restricted funds,” and “special funds.” It isn’t the lightest reading, but it is our statement of public priorities, and the 346 pages of the proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget are thus a vital mirror of community desires and public decisions. Those pages also reflect years of deals and commitments made, oftentimes by a previous set of officials.

Take the case of the San Antonio Public Library. Just a few months ago on the Current’s blog The Daily, I called attention to the City’s attempt to slash the hours and services of the Central Library’s Texana and Genealogy Department—the place every branch library refers folks with history questions.

At the time, it appeared that this vital repository of our city’s history was saved. But as Paula Allen of the San Antonio Express-News recently reported, that same cutback in hours and staff is now part of the 2015 budget. I may be one of a small number of folks who regularly use (and send students to use) the Texana’s resources. Perhaps it’s simply not a priority for most San Antonians. But until recently it was almost impossible to know its budget is being cut. The reduction isn’t included among the list of “General Fund Reductions,” nor was it mentioned in San Antonio Public Library Director Ramiro Salazar’s August 20 presentation to council on the library’s 2015 budget.

Apparently, the City can’t afford to support this part of the Central Library for more than a limited 20 hours per week. But the library’s budget for next year isn’t being cut—it’s increasing. So what can the City afford?

Well, “General Fund Mandates” include staffing for a new branch library in Council District 9 on the North Side, for a total of $303,169. Another $342,773 is budgeted for enhanced adult-education and literacy programs, including three new staff positions. So the library is adding literacy programs a year after the budget for the city’s larger adult-literacy program was itself slashed by almost $2 million.

Perhaps the most striking contrast to the cuts at the Texana is an entirely new “improvement” added last year: $98,303 “to staff the Library History Portal at the Briscoe Western Arts Museum.” Didn’t know there’s a “history portal” inside the Briscoe? You are likely not alone. Except for a sign on the River Walk entry to the museum, which includes a line for “Library Portal,” there is little indication that a piece of the San Antonio Public Library lies inside. The sign gives no indication that a “library portal” is a public facility, with no admission fee, unlike the Briscoe. It doesn’t convey that the “portal” is in fact intended to be a “focal point for those interested in historical documents significant in the history of San Antonio and Bexar County,” according to the 2006 City ordinance authorizing the lease of the old Main Library building for use as a museum.

Inside, you’ll find a pleasantly appointed room with comfy club chairs, abundant iPads, interesting displays on local history and a non-circulating collection of books on San Antonio and Texas, as well as an enthusiastic staff member. But you won’t find much of the “up to 5,000 square feet of dedicated space” promised in the 2006 ordinance. It’s not the size of a large house—it’s just one room. As a statement of our public priorities, the budgetary disconnect between the “portal” and the Texana and Genealogy collections is dramatic and telling. Why did a largely invisible portal to our history garner the dollars that our larger historical resources appear to have lost? Yet another political deal.

County Judge Nelson Wolff sealed the deal that delivered the old Hertzberg Museum and Main Library building for a museum of Western art, but he and the Briscoe’s backers faced a legal problem. When the Kampmann family donated the site in 1900 for what became San Antonio’s Carnegie library, they stipulated that the property must be used for a public library. If the City violates the terms, the land reverts to the Kampmann family.  

It’s not that the City’s proposed 2015 budget doesn’t include lots of money for lots of deals and promises. There’s $150,000 for SA2020 to continue data collection and analysis; $200,000 for “better utilization of Maverick Plaza and La Villita”; $150,000 for Siclovía and another $1.4 million to support the operation of the Hemisfair Park Redevelopment Corporation. It’s all a matter of someone’s priorities.


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